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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 119-121 ( 21 March )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/archer.html

Book Review

The Nature of Grief: The Evolution and Psychology of Reactions to Loss
by John Archer
Routledge, 1999.

Reviewed by Eduardo Keegan, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapies, School of Psychology, University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

John Archer’s The Nature of Grief offers an original approach to the topic. Rather than presenting the conventional, clinical emphasis on depression and bereavement, Archer’s book argues that grief is a natural reaction to the loss of a relationship. This particular view places grief ‘in the province of biology and psychology, rather than psychiatry and counselling’.

The research that gave origin to the book is theoretically based on evolutionary psychology and attachment theory, particularly on the works of Colin Murray Parkes and John Bowlby. Archer also acknowledges the important influence of ethology, through the work of Niko Tinbergen and his emphasis that psychological theory should only come after a detailed description of the phenomenon has been attained.

Indeed, one of the great aspects of this interesting book is the constant effort to avoid a reductionistic conception of grief. Archer highlights the importance of a cross-cultural consideration of the phenomenon. Since an overwhelming proportion of research on the topic is done in the United States, there is a risk of generalizing aspects of grief that are idiosyncratic of the American society. The book offers, instead, a wealth of information on the experience of grief in different cultures.

The author quotes William McDougall’s remark that ‘the wise psychologist will regard literature as a vast storehouse of information about human experience’. Accordingly, Archer considers grief not only from a scientific point of view, but also investigates the artistic sources on the topic. Thus, he aims to start his work with a thorough descriptive approach before proceeding to the explanatory phase, in line with Tinbergen’s ethological perspective. I must also add that the chapter on artistic sources is not only scientifically sound, but also quite enjoyable from the literary point of view.

Archer argues that grief is a universal experience in the human species, derived from simpler forms in the animal world. In its simplest form, the experience involves two processes: one of active distress, search and anger and a second one characterised by an inactive, depressed state. In human grief a complex set of reactions is added, involving a change in the personal identity of the afflicted.

It has always proved difficult to offer a theory of grief according to the old Darwinian paradigm of evolution. How could grief be considered the product of evolution when it seemed so maladaptive for survival and procreation?

The works of Colin Murray Parkes, Archer says, offer a new evolutionary approach that can solve the apparent contradiction. Parkes views grief as a result of a ‘trade-off’ between costs and benefits. Humans establish bonds that have multiple advantages and great adaptive value, these being the benefits. But what happens if the person to which we are bound suddenly dies? There is a cost to pay for the advantages generated by that bond. In Parkes’s words, grief is ‘the cost of commitment’.

The Nature of Grief is also refreshing in that it questions a number of largely untested assumptions shared both by the layman and mental health professionals. Archer notes that Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia has greatly influenced the conception of grief, generating a number of widely accepted but largely untested hypotheses. The first one is the conception of grief as an active process, involving the struggle to give up the emotional and internal attachment to a love object. The second one is the ‘grief work’ hypothesis, i.e., the idea that a loss has to be confronted in thought and expression in order to overcome the initial denial of reality. Should this not happen, then pathological grief is to be expected. The third assumption is that every person will show depression or distress and that recovery always comes with time. The last assumption is that of the existence of stages of grief.

The Nature of Grief offers a comprehensive assessment and critique of these hypotheses. The issue is important for research, but it also has considerable clinical implications, since it questions well-established approaches to the management of bereaved and depressed patients.

Freud’s influence has also overshadowed the contributions of other authors. Archer holds that Foundations of Character, the book written in the early twentieth century by British psychologist A. F. Shand, would have provided a much better basis for empirical research on grief than Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia. In fact, Shand anticipated many of the conclusions achieved by contemporary research on grief. Archer presents a persuasive comparison of Shand’s main ideas on grief and current research data.

The ‘stage hypothesis’ is challenged in a chapter dedicated to the analysis of grief. The time courses of specific grief reactions differ considerably, Archer argues, and these differences do not correspond with the stage view. The lack of an adequate description of grief is partly blamed for this problem.

Proceeding to explanation before conducting a careful description of the phenomenon would have resulted in two major problems. The first is one is premature investigation using rather restricted measures. An example of this is the way depression scales are sometimes used in grief research. A second unfortunate outcome has been the generation of theory based on limited evidence, as exemplified by the research on bereavement, dominated by the stage hypothesis.

Archer analyses behavioural and psychoanalytical models of grief resolution and concludes that they both emphasise confrontation with the loss as the essential process. But the mixed findings yielded by the research of the grief-work hypothesis suggest that there must be alternative routes to the resolution of grief.

Archer believes that Stroebe and Schut’s Dual-Process Model is more congruent with research findings. This model predicts that confrontation of the loss and engagement in something sufficiently powerful to replace the memory of the lost love can be alternative paths to the resolution of grief. It also suggests that oscillation between the two strategies can be an adaptive alternative. Recent research findings have shown that subjects who confronted a loss fared no better than those who were absorbed by an activity that distracted them from their grief. These results certainly favour the Dual-Process Model.

Another interesting feature of the book is that it examines the possible contributions of psychological research to the elucidation of the mental processes involved in grieving. Intrusive thoughts, hallucinations, distraction, self-blame and other mental phenomena associated with grief are considered under the light of recent empirical psychological research.

And what about individual differences, given the evolutionary perspective of the book? Findings for an association between grief and reproductive value and between grief and kinship, states Archer, are inconsistent. The evidence for differences according to sex matched predictions a lot better, but this could be accounted for in other ways. In general terms, Archer believes that there is little doubt that the intensity of grief reflects the biological importance of the lost relationship. He suggests that further investigation of these matters from an ethological point of view is needed. The search for functional explanations, though, will require the postulation of mediating mechanisms.

The book is nicely designed and illustrated, and the references to both lay and scientific literature are numerous.

I believe that The Nature of Grief will be of interest for researchers and clinicians. The first will appreciate the quality and breadth of the investigation. Clinicians will find that the book challenges many classic interventions with grieving patients. Hopefully, Archer’s book will inspire new approaches in clinical research aimed at improving our armamentarium, thus enhancing our effectiveness in helping grieving clients.

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© Eduardo Keegan.


Keegan, E. (2002). Review of The Nature of Grief: The Evolution and Psychology of Reactions to Loss by John Archer. Human Nature Review. 2: 119-121.

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